Friday, 31 October 2014

Reflections on gifted children and pushy parents

Yesterday I went to a talk by my young colleague Clémentine Beauvais whose current research is about gifted children. The talk was about gifted children and pushy parents, and it provoked two strands of reflections. Was I a gifted child and were my parents pushy? Are my children gifted and are we pushy parents?

Since my parents are dead I can share my views without reservations. I probably wasn't a gifted child by the standards defined in Clémentine's research, but I was clearly above the average. I was bilingual, I could read at five and started writing stories before I could read (I scribbled something down that I then read aloud). I was forced to practice the piano when I was six – here comes the pushy parents bit. I believe it was rather pushy grandparents, but everybody in the family were musicians, so I never questioned it, simply hated it. Wasn't it obvious for my parents that I was a word person, not a music person? I love music and cannot imagine my life without music, but practising scales wasn't my thing. When I stopped I was told that I would one day regret it, but I never did.

In school I was expected to be a high achiever, full stop. Straight As. I wouldn't be punished for a occasional A-, like some of my classmates, but I knew I was a disappointment. When I in Year 5 had one A- in my annual report and didn't, as usual, win a book and a diploma for “academic excellence and good behaviour”, I was absolutely devastated.

Not to mention the tragedy when I had one A- in my final exams and didn't win a gold medal “like everybody in the family”.

I have already told the story of my parents' disappointment in my choice of education, but they kept telling me that I could still amend it by graduate studies. “Everybody in the family” had a PhD before 30. My mother was late, 36, but she was excused because she had to ditch an almost complete thesis for political reasons. I also got my PhD late, just as late as my mother, but I had to ditch an almost complete PhD because I moved countries. My parents were unimpressed. “Everybody in the family” in three generations was a professor, so I'd better apply myself.

I don't know whether they were pushy parents by Clémentine's standards, but they certainly pushed me toward the edge more than once, for better and for worse.

When it comes to my children and my own parenting, it becomes more sensitive, so I'll proceed with caution. With my first-born, I was so young that pushes still came more from my parents than myself. They didn't help me, a single mother, in the everyday, but they would borrow my son to show off to their friends, making him learn and recite long, grownup poems. They – or we, since I silently agreed – forced him to play the piano, which he hated. I took him out of the nursery school twice a week to ride the underground to the other end of the city for skating classes, which we both hated, but I was being an exemplary mother.

My mother had wild ideas that she pushed onto me. At one point she decided that Sergej should learn slalom skiing. The closest, very primitive resort for this exclusive sport was three or four hours by train from Moscow. My mother suggested that I take him there on Saturdays, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, eat picnic dinner, breakfast and lunch, let him ski in the morning and come back in the afternoon. She was really disappointed when I rejected this brilliant idea. (Many years later Sergej spent two winters as a ski instructor in Chamounix, so he didn't miss on skiing).

With our Swedish children we were pushy or supportive, depending how you look at it. We took them to piano, cello, trumpet and ballet classes, football and basket training; children's activities at the Museum of Modern Art; we encouraged stamp collecting, sailing, summer drama camps, photography (with a lab in the cellar). I believe that we became less pushy with the youngest, simply having no energy left, but when he wanted to play American football in school in California, which required a special medical check-up, not to mention equipment, we obliged. I don't remember why it didn't happen after all.

Academic achievements were a problem. Julia could read at three and was a voracious reader. She was bored to death in school and was bullied. Unfortunately, the Swedish school system provides excellent support for children with special needs, but has no room for gifted children. When Julia was nine I went to see her class teacher and school councillor and told them that my daughter was exxtra gifted. They said all parents said that. I suggested that the councillor had professional skills to test my daughter's abilities. He did. She scored, as he reluctantly admitted, well above him. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me there was nothing he could do because the Swedish school system had no provision for gifted children. I said I would home-school her. He told me it was illegal. I reminded him that my husband was a journalist. He shut up.

I allowed Julia to stay at home and take care of her education as she pleased. At that moment I knew that I was going to the USA for six months and would take her along. In her school in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was top of her class in English after a month. She became competitive and happy. When we came back to Sweden, we reluctantly, against our beliefs, put her in a private school where she was allowed to study at her own capacity. We also moved Anton to the same school.

When we enrolled them in high school in California, the person who constructed their schedules suggested pottery and home economics. I said no, my children would take Advanced English, Advanced History, Advanced Foreign Languages, Advanced everything, and if there was something still more advanced they would take that as well. They told me that AP would incur costs for the exam. I said I was quite happy to make the investment. I guess this makes me a pushy parent.

Of course, I have no idea what they really thought, but I believe they enjoyed school that was a challenge. Julia won every possible and impossible award at graduation; regrettably, since we were not residents she could not get the monetary part of the awards, otherwise any American University would be open for her.

Instead, she had to take a test in Swedish to qualify for Swedish higher education and failed because she didn't remember which effing bird Miss Julie had in effing Strindberg's effing drama. Someone suggested that she she had gone to a school abroad she could take a test in Swedish as a second language. There, it was enough to be able to read a newspaper ad.

Gifted children and pushy parents is a social construct, says Dr Beauvais, and I agree. Yet behind every social construct there are thousands of real people, and no fate is like another fate.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 7

I haven't seen anything in the papers, but Alan Garner turns eighty today.

I read some of his books two lives back, in Moscow when every book in English was a treasure and every children's book in English was worth its weight in gold. I was writing my first academic paper on children's literature, and Garner's books were central in it. And it so happened that the Soviet Writers' Union was holding an international children's literature event at which I was engaged as an interpreter for a Swedish visitor, and among the many distinguished guests was the great Alan Garner. I was just an errand girl, not a participant, so approaching a famous writer to introduce myself was embarrassing. I was among the very few interpreters who were actually interested in children's literature – they could have been engaged for a conference on chemistry or economics. But because I showed interest in and at least some knowledge of British children's literature, including Garner's novels, the conversation shaped nicely, and I even did something I had never done before: gave him my address and phone number. I could have lost my job for this.

Sadly, the promised postcards with pretty views of Cheshire never came, and I did another unheard-of thing: wrote a letter care of Garner's publisher and asked my father who was going abroad to post it for me. When he came back, he returned the letter saying that he hadn't dared to take it with him. He could have lost his job.

Some months later, I was once again engaged for an international event at the Writers' Union and met Alan's interpreter who gave me his regards. I asked her to send him mine and explain that his pretty postcards had never reached me so I wasn't being rude. Alan started sending postcards in envelopes, and although I had no idea how many were sent and not delivered, some did come through. One of them contained an unusual proposal. An obscure journal was doing a special issue on Alan Garner – would I consider contributing to it? At this point of my life I knew that I was moving to Sweden in the near future, otherwise I would have burned this letter and stopped the correspondence altogether. As it was, I wrote an article - from my today's vantage point, it was horrendous – and Staffan smuggled it out of Russia and got it safely to the editor who seemed to be satisfied, as was the subject of the study himself. The editor wrote me a polite letter saying that he had been told it was pointless to send me an honorarium, but he was sending me a box of chocolates. Interestingly, it came through, although I had to pay substantial import tax.

During the first summer after I had moved to Sweden, Staffan and I went to the UK by car. The reason was a bicycle fair in Harrogate, but we took a detour via Edinburgh and Inverness, and while Staffan was at the fair, I went to Cheshire. Alan had given me minute instructions, with exact timetable for the three trains I was supposed to change. I was scared to death, travelling on my own in this strange foreign country. I have pictures from this visit: me heavily pregnant, and Alan showing me some of the Important Artefacts featured in his books.

I visited several times; more or less every time I happened to be in the UK. Once Sergej and I had the privilege of staying for almost a week and being taken to all Important Places: the underground tunnels, the Edge, the Wizhard's well, Mow Cop, the Hall of the Green Knight. At one time, Alan asked me to collect and send to him initial and final formulas of Russian folktales: “Beyond thrice three mountains, in the thrice third kingdom...” As far as I know, this collection was never completed.

Once we concurred in Moscow, at yet another international event hosted by the Writers' Union, but this time I was an eminent international guest.

Another time, I was going to a conference of the Children's Literature Association, and changing planes at Heathrow saw piles of the newly published Strandloper which I bought and read on the place. I was presumably the only one at the conference who had read the novel. The author was there to receive the Phoenix Award.

I moved around the world, to California, back to Sweden and eventually to Cambridge. The correspondence became limited to birthday and Christmas greetings and finally stopped. It is just the way it is.

Happy birthday, Alan!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Thirty years ago

We dropped off two-year-old Julia in day care telling her teacher that we were in a hurry. The teacher didn't ask any questions. We called a friend asking her to pick up Julia from day care in the afternoon. Staffan speeded and didn't stop at red.

Two hours later, we called the same friend again, who assured us that she would pick up Julia and we didn't have to worry. We were calling to tell her it wouldn't be necessary.

Staffan picked up Julia and all siblings to come and see their baby brother. I must admit I don't remember it, but according to Lisa, Julia had a look, stepped aside and threw up.

What I remember is the look I received from the young new mother next to me. Seeing four children around the baby, and having just gone through it herself, she certainly wondered why on earth anyone would want to do it again.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


The first rule I learned when I started teaching in San Diego was: “We don't fraternise with students”.

It made me upset because I was used to fraternising – although I didn't know that was the name for what I was used to. I used to go out for a beer with a group of undergraduates in Sweden after a seminar. In Finland, my students would be surprised and offended if I didn't go out for a beer with them.

When I moved to Cambridge I was expecting a very formal atmosphere, definitely no fraternising. Instead, fraternising is the very spirit of Cambridge.

This is the Big Fraternising Week, the first week of term. Yesterday, I fraternised with the new masters students. True, we had to do some course introduction first, but afterwards it was wine and snacks and high decibels of fraternising. In these austerity times, the Faculty apparently believes that drinks and mingle for a hundred students and professors is a good investment

Today, I fraternised with the new PhD students. Wine, snacks and laughter.

Tomorrow, I will fraternise with new masters and PhD students in my College. It is called matriculation. Not just wine and snacks, but a three-course dinner, and afterwards a ceremony with a drinking horn.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Topographic idiot

This year's Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded for identifying the spot in the brain that enables us to know where we are.

I must have been born without this spot, or it was somehow damaged early in my life.

My father used to call me “topographic idiot”. In those days it was acceptable to say something like this to a child without considering life-long trauma. But I was an obedient child and believed what I was told.

I have been lost in places I had known for ages. I have been lost driving, biking and walking. I have been lost in Moscow and in Stockholm, my two hometowns; and I have been lost in unfamiliar places more times than I like to remember. I have been lost while picking up people from airports – it's totally embarrassing. I once had to call my best friend from a payphone – it was long before mobiles – and ask her to come and find me because I was lost, two blocks from her house where I has been hundreds of times. I can still get lost in Milton Country Park where I walk at least twice a week. I constantly get lost in central Cambridge. 

Obviously, this important part of the brain that helps other people to know where they are is missing.

But there is hope for people like me. (I am sure I am not the only one in the world; it is just too embarrassing to admit). Last Sunday I went to Ely to see a friend. I have been to Ely scores of times, and I know how to get to the Cathedral parking, and if it is full, I know how to get to another parking. Anything beyond that is too challenging for a topographic idiot. In such situations I gratefully remember one of my wonderful granddaughters who insisted, two years ago, that “Granny wants a smartphone for her birthday”. There are many things I use my phone for (least of all for phone calls), but is was the first time I used voice navigation. Wow, how much I loved this nice lady who told me, softly and patiently, like you should speak to a topographic idiot: “In a quarter of a mile, in the roundabout, drive straight through and stay on the road”.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 8 and final: Mora-mora and other wisdom

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four, five, six and seven.

“Mora-mora” (or something like that) means “slowly but surely”. Don't rush. It will take the time it takes. Sooner or later.

My old Russian self is comfortable with the attitude. Mora-mora your luggage will arrive. Or maybe not. Mora-mora your flight will maybe depart or maybe not, but mora-mora it will.

Our flight from Toliara back to Tana was scheduled 12.25, but Mami told us already the day before that it would probably leave at 4.40 or probably delayed indefinitely. Apparently, Madagascar Air has one Boeing that jumps up and down between the capital and smaller cities at random intervals. Because of the delay we had time to visit Arboretum. When we were finally taken to the airport, the plane was there, but not going to Tana yet; first to some other place, then back to Toliara, then to Tana. Mora-mora.

In the morning, I went to get some money from the ATM. You never knew how much you might need, and I didn't want to take out too much. The highest amount the machine allowed to withdraw was 200,000 ariary, but when I tried, the display said it was unavailable. I tried 100,000; I tried another card; Anton tried his card. The long line behind us got impatient. We moved aside, and the next person tried. The machine had run out of cash! Mora-mora. I was truly amused.

The plane eventually came, and the next day in Tana we went to the Lemur Park, and the day after we flew home with seven hours stop in Nairobi that almost killed me.

And it took me mora-mora to come to terms with Madagascar. In my journal, I sometimes wrote that I hated it, that the culture was alien to me, that apart from short walks I didn't get anything out of the trip. I was wrong. I wrote in my first Madagascar post that the experience was life-changing, and it was. It just took mora-mora to admit it to myself.

First, I had to tell something to my friends and colleagues, who eagerly inquired whether the trip had met my expectations. I was obliged to say that it hadn't, but only because I had had wrong expectations. When people asked me: “Was it fabulous?” I said cautiously: “It was interesting”. The more I had to account for, the more vivid the memories went, and the more they shifted. When people asked: “Did you really see lemurs?” I said: “Yes. But we also saw people”. And mora-mora I realised that it was significant.

Mora-mora I looked up charities that work in Madagascar. I realised that I am paying more in pet insurance that it would cost to send a Malagasy child to school. Does it mean that I should stop paying pet insurance, stop making miniatures (although I make most of them from rubbish, like the man in the miniature-bike shop), stop gardening, stop going out for dinner or have my hair cut? No, not at all. But it sets everything in perspective. The money we spent on our trip would be enough to build a school. But then, if we hadn't gone on the trip, we wouldn't have known. 

Every morning when I shower, I remember discarded plastic bottles that Mami filled with tap water and gave to people along the road. I have always been ecologically aware, so nothing was a revelation. But even with my Russian background, I take too much for granted.

The good thing is that I don't feel guilty. (I used to feel guilty about Russia, but it is another story). I feel, in a strange way, peaceful, because there are more important things in the world than my small everyday problems.

This is what some charity sites say:

£5 will provide tools...
£10 will provide seeds...
£15 will provide a stove...
£25 will provide a school desk...

Mora-mora, Madagascar, I may come back.

Aloe in Isalo National park

All photos in my Madagascar diaries have been taken by Anton Skott

Friday, 3 October 2014

Masagascar diaries, part 7: Looking for lemurs

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four, five and six.

But what about wildlife? you may be wondering by now. Where is this wonderful unique flora and fauna, biodiversity, endemic species, the famous lemurs?

Well, we saw as much as you can expect to see on a trip of this scope, if you read the trip description carefully. We visited three national parks, Ranomafana, Andringitra and Isalo. Only in Andringitra we stayed sort of inside the park, but we did not sleep in tents, which I don't regret. There were ringtails all over the camp, half-tame. In Ranomafana we stayed in a lodge close enough to the park to have a sense of being in a rainforest, and it was the only night when we saw the magnificent Southern sky. In Isalo we stayed in a fancy-ish hotel in a village far away from the park and only went into the park for a couple of hours. In total we have not been in the nature for more than perhaps twenty hours out of ten days. But they were mostly good hours, and the walks made me happy.

The road from Antsirabe to Ranomafana National Park was winding up and down mountains (I was glad I sat in the front seat that day), and by the afternoon the views began to be magnificent. The road itself got worse, but our driver Guy was imaginative, carefully avoiding potholes. All in all, we covered 240 km that day. As we entered the park and started the descent into a gorge, all of a sudden the familiar green walls of the rainforest appeared on both sides, a river along the road developing into cascades. It was as if we had gone through a portal into an alternative world. 

That night, we soaked ourselves in insect repellent, and it was the first time ever I slept in a mosquito tent. 

Outside, the rainforest was full of those wonderful rainforest noises I remembered from Brazil: crickets, frogs, birds. The smells, the touch of humid fog. We were promised a full-day walk with a picnic lunch the next day. I was full of anticipation since we had finally come to where I had longed to be. The previous two long and strenuous days were merely travel days, and from now on it would be nature all the way.

In the morning we met our local guide, Nono, and then we went into the park, with our backpacks, bottles of water, binoculars and cameras.

I had been worrying that I wouldn't be fit enough for the walk, but I was, and I was glad I had done all those endless step-ups at the gym, because we climbed up and down, bumping into other groups looking for lemurs. Nono stopped every now and then to tell us something, but perhaps mostly to let us catch breath. There was also a young boy who was an “animal spotter”, a scout sent in advance. Presumably, the guides had mobile phones to communicate, because all groups conflated in the same spots. I was still naïve and thought we were in genuine wilderness, even though it was a park, but it eventually became clear that everywhere the park rangers and guides fed lemurs at certain locations for tourists' benefit. But, who cares, we did see the locally famous Golden bamboo lemur, two black-and-white Milne-Edwards sifakas high in a tree, two awahi who are nocturnal and therefore obediently slept, and several Greater Bamboo lemurs who came down to the ground so I could almost touch them. 

 I could have stayed there forever, but we were rushed further, walking up and down for a while without seeing anything else. Then we were led back to the entrance, and the picnic lunch was a ham sandwich we ate standing by the van. We were then taken to another park where we were promised an abundance of birds, and right by the entrance we saw a group of Red-Bellied lemurs.

The rest of the walk was an anticlimax, and our birdwatcher Lynn was particularly disappointed because we didn't see one single bird! We saw some insects and a tiny frog, but there was nothing of Attenborough-photoshopped diversity of hundreds of species per square meter. The walk was almost flat. I did feel tired a bit – after all, we had been out for six hours – and proud of myself. Mami had mentioned hot springs, which sounded enticing, but it turned out to be a regular swimming pool full of local kids, so I skipped it.

The next day we drove to Andringitra National Park, on a road that I could not in my worst dreams imagine was possible to drive on, and I have seen enough of poor roads.

It took us two hours to drive perhaps thirty kilometres. I wasn't scared, but I wondered whether we would get there at all. The scenery was fabulous: high granite mountains raising all around us.

When we arrived in Camp Catta, the first thing we saw was a group of ringtailed lemurs, which cheered us all up. 

We agreed in the evening that we would go on a medium-difficult walk the next day, 5-6 hours with picnic lunch, which I was looking forward to, although with some anxiety. I don't know whether it was a miscommunication or whether Mami had decided that some of us were not fit for medium-difficult, but the walk was a total disappointment. The local guide didn't speak much English, so he didn't tell us anything of interest. We saw more ringtails basking in the sun, Attenborough-wise; the dry forest was beautiful; and after half an hour we came to a natural pool. We had been told to bring swimsuits, but I was the only one to jump in, much to the amusement of local children who tried – not aggressively – to sell us beadwork. When I was changing back into my clothes, the kids came closer, and I had to ask the guide to tell them to go away, which they dutifully did. 

After that, the walk was dull, eventually leading to a half-finished hotel where we had our sandwiches and were entertained by a young woman playing drums and singing. It was one o'clock when we got back to the camp, and Anton was really angry because he had aimed at climbing the rock, which apparently was part of the medium-difficult walk. He and Mark and Cathy decided to do it on their own, which, remarkably, was allowed, and I asked Mami whether there was another walk. There was one (extra charge to the guide), to a waterfall, 5 km one way, on the horrible road we had come, in the heat of the day. It turned out, I hadn't missed much by not going on that walk, because we saw the so called waterfall next day and it was dried up.

This left me the option of climbing the rock, but I knew I couldn't keep pace with the young people. Mami said it was safe for me to go, and I started with Anton and the rest, but after two hundred metres I took it very, very slowly, stopping and sitting down every fifty steps. The view was stunning, and the light was changing all the time. It was cloudy and not too hot. There were fantastic flowers and plants on the way, but I hadn't brought my phone/camera because Anton was our designated photographer, and I hadn't thought about it. But I have vivid memories of this climb, and looking back, it was one of the few highlights of the whole trip. Anton said afterwards that he was impressed by how high I had climbed, and I would have climbed higher still and possibly even caught up with them drinking beer by the rock face. What happened next was my own fault.

I was taking a pause, sitting on a rock and enjoying the view, when a young man, almost a boy, came hurrying up the path. With my traumatic memories of Armenia forty years ago, I was sure he would either rape or rob me, and the climb immediately lost its attraction. He walked past me with an indifferent “Bonjour”, but I knew I had to get down as soon as possible. Anton and the rest were nowhere in sight. The boy went up a bit and stopped, then followed me down which made my blood freeze. I didn't believe he would kill me so close to the camp, but the other options were bad enough. Thinking back, it was my sick imagination. Maybe Mami had sent him to check on me, or he went up on his own, to offer help in case I needed it. I am sure he was the nicest young man. But the situation brought back the traumatic memories, and I didn't enjoy it any more. Luckily, my memory is selective, and I will remember the joy and not the terror. I am just irritated at myself, that such a trifle made me stop halfway. 

The final nature experience was in Isalo (pronounced EE-sha-loo), which took us another day to travel to. I had reconciled with the idea of Madagascar being a huge country with poor roads and inevitable long journeys from place to place. In the morning we climbed a mountain, enjoying fantastic views, but I couldn't help thinking that I had seen incredible mountainscapes in Australia and Arizona, and wasn't I really spoiled by having travelled so much. 

Closer up, we saw stick insects and a couple of birds.

Then we went down the gorge to another natural pool, and this time everybody went swimming, and there were many other groups and too much noise. Anton was furious that we hadn't taken a more challenging circuit. Indeed, we didn't have to go back to our hotel for lunch but could have walked on. On the afternoon walk we saw two chameleons and a group of red-froned brown lemurs, apparently also half-tame. Dancing sifakas had been promised, but, as Mami said, “they had gone”. They should have glued them to the trees.

The highlight was a gorgeous waterfall, a tough climb where half of our group gave up, but I climbed on slowly, and it was worth it. I think it was my favourite walk.

After that, noisy crowds by the Fenetre, pushing to get the best snapshot of the sunset through the famous rock formation, felt pointless. The moment the sun was down they immediately dispersed. I was the last to leave and could have stayed longer. But the whole day was somewhat of a rush, and it was our last active day. 

On the way to Toliara we were supposed to see spiny forest, but for some reason we missed it. We saw some baobabs. They weren't impressive.

Ironically, most of the nature we saw was in two small parks, Arboretum outside Toliara and Lemur Park 20 km outside Tana. Neither was part of our tour. The Arboretum guide was excellent, and we finally had a chance to touch, smell, look carefully, stay as much as we wished. We saw more birds, insects, lizards than during our whole trip. They had 900 species there. (Homerton College gardens have 800). The most interesting was an octopus plant, which is not a cactus. Lemurs somehow manage to jump on them. 

To the Lemur Park we went on our extra day in Tana. There was a reason we stayed an extra day, although I don't remember; possibly, the airfare was more reasonable. We hired a car and driver for the whole day for a ridiculous price (the driver had a BA in English, but driving tourists was more lucrative). The park is private and has nine species of lemur, including the wonderful dancing sifakas. We saw them dance, and we heard them scream.

Common brown lemur

Crowned sifaka                   Coquerel's Sifaka

 The park was done with tact and taste; the lemurs were fed and taken care of, but could move around as they wished, and animals don't go away from their feeding spots.

This sums up our wildlife experience in Madagascar. Maybe I had chosen a wrong trip after all. Maybe we should have gone to just one place and stayed there and seen what there was to see. But this is what we have seen, and I will cherish it.

This is my favourite, White and black ruffed lemur. I like this individual in particular; I feel he is my soulmate.

To be concluded.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 6: Child labour and other cute things

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four and five.

On our first day, when we stopped for whatever reason, I saw children holding rods. I asked Mami what they were doing. He asked them to show. They were playing. They had taken two plastic bottle caps, connected with a stick to make an axis, and raced the little two-wheel vehicles with the rods. I was about to cry. When I was a child we also played with simple things. Sticks, cones, pebbles. During our trip, we saw hundreds of children playing with all kinds of things. We didn't see any manufactured toys. 

Meeting with children was for me the most disturbing thing, emotionally, and my travel companions' constant comments on children being cute made me wince.

At one point we were taken to a family smithy where barefoot boys were hammering on a heavy piece of metal. The audience was delighted. They were so cute and skilful.

I am sorry to offend anyone, but I don't find child labour cute. It isn't even cute to watch for five minutes, and still less to think that the children probably do it ten hours a day seven days a week, not because they enjoy it, but because they have to feed themselves and the rest of the family. I may sound old-fashioned, but I think children should go to school. I firmly believe in the benefits of education. But I may be wrong. Malagasy parents don't send their children to school. They send them to watch zebu.

A zebu costs 300,000 ariary, which is €100 and three months wages. Children as young as six are hired to watch zebus and are paid one zebu a year. By the time they are fifteen they own a hoard. Why would they go to school, which won't get them a job or a social status? The only thing that gives status is zebu. Schools are few and far between, and there are no school buses. Rural schools have one teacher and a hundred pupils in a classroom. There are hardly any books or supplies. Much better to stay at home and earn zebu.

At one stop, we saw a tiny, perhaps five-year-old girl tossing rice in a huge mortar. Lynn asked to lift the pestle: it was heavy. Everyone thought the girl was cute. I had to turn away.

On the way from Ranomafana to Andringitra we stopped to visit “a genuine Malagasy home”. Mami made it sound as if he was doing us a special favour, and we almost swallowed it, although it had of course been pre-arranged. Mami had explained to us what a Malagasy house looked like: storage and poultry in the ground floor, two bedrooms on the first floor and, if there is a second floor, kitchen. In the house we visited, forty-two people in three generations lived together. The oldest people slept in a bed, the younger on mattresses, young boys had blankets, and girls slept on bare dirt floor.

Well, seventy years ago in Sweden, forty people might share two rooms.

It was clean, it didn't smell (like Russian country huts would). The others saw cockroaches – I didn't. We had cockroaches in our flat in central Moscow. There were no tables or chairs, just a couple of beds. My travel companions said afterwards how charming it was with three generations living together, and I didn't say anything. When I was a child, we lived four generations together, not in a clay hut, but in a, by Russian standards, luxury flat. It wasn't charming. It was a necessity, and there wasn't any way out of it. My great aunt, returning to Moscow from deportation in mid-50s, was allowed to buy a part of a peasant hut just outside the city, with no running water and a clay stove she used for heating and cooking. Young and silly as I was, I thought it was charming and loved to visit her. In the '70s she finally got a modern municipal flat, and it was from her reaction I realised how much she had hated the charm.

Anyway, now comes the sad part of the story. The guidebook said visitors should bring small souvenirs for local people: postcards, stickers, pencils for children. I thought it was nonsense. Yet there I was, surrounded by children of various ages, some carrying babies on their backs, calling: “Cadeaux, cadeaux!” They were not begging, they smiled and cheered, and I had not brought any gifts. I was embarrassed - no, ashamed. Mami was dispensing hotel soaps and some toiletries I had found in my purse. I saw two teenage girls smelling my body lotion with suspicion. But it would have been so easy to bring crayons, erasers, pins, ribbons, hair clips, small things you find in party ctrackers - just by rummaging through my desk drawers! I now rummaged through my backpack and dug up some pens which were snatched from my hands – gently, not aggressively – with happy grins. One of the girls had asked for our names and kept saying: “Catherine and Maria!” Her name was Lydia, or at least that's what I heard her say.

For the next hour in the van I was thinking about what I could do for Lydia. I knew I could not adopt her, as I once upon a time believed I must do with a girl in a Russian orphanage millions of miles away from everything, who ran up to me as soon as I entered the room, hugged me and cried: “Mamma!” I could not adopt Lydia because she had this big family who, I am sure, loved her. But I was thinking about asking Mami to visit her on the way back to Tana and give her all my t-shirts and scarves, and my notebook and the rest of my pens, and somehow send her a parcel with more pens and crayons and a teddy bear and picturebooks in French. I thought how I might send money through some charity to help her go to school and have her teacher write to me about her. All my idealistic stuff.

Mami mentioned later that he chose a new family each time, to be fair, so he might never go back to that family again. He said he paid them 5,000 ariary per visit, which is about one pound and which would buy two meals for the whole family.

And I kept thinking: maybe a small weaving frame, like my grandchildren have; a sewing or embroidery kit, something useful rather than toys. Although I can imagine – no, I cannot imagine – what a pile of simple toys would be like for those kids. How, how, what could I do? Lydia will stay forever in my mind, just like that little Russian girl. (I have a picture, but Anton and I have agreed that we should not put pictures of children on the web). I didn't want her to be raped by an uncle at the age of eight and start having babies at twelve and have ten by twenty-five. I wanted her to go to school and get a proper education and change the world. But she would be better off watching zebus.

Yet I was thinking: Sweden was poor a hundred years ago, and it all changed with democracy. Russia is still poor and will never change. The Malagasy people are poor, but they work hard and build their clay-brick houses which they decorate nicely if they can; and the children were clean, and the girls' hair carefully plaited. And everybody smiled.

And I couldn't help thinking: when I was a child in the Communist Russia, we would treasure pens, candy wraps, pins, rubber bands, paper clips, and yes, hotel soaps, anything foreign brought into Russia by the few privileged to travel abroad; how valuable these things were to us. And then, I lived in the capital and belonged to the elite. And I couldn't help thinking: do these children - and grownups for that matter - hate us like we, in those old evil days in Russia, hated and envied foreigners who had all those attractive things that we were denied.

I hope they don't. I don't want little Lydia to hate me because I went back to the van and disappeared from her life forever, with just a pen left behind.

Maybe I can make a difference, but I don't know yet how. Maybe I cannot reach Lydia, but I can help another girl who will then help two more girls. I did give Mami all my t-shirts when we parted, to dispense as he saw fit. 

At this stop, Mami told the children to line up to get their gifts.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 5: Local businesses

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three and four.

Something that I would have enjoyed more if I had been better prepared for it was visiting workshops and tiny factories. The tour description mentioned stopping at woodcarver centres and papermaking factories, which, as I said before, are an unavoidable part of any group travel, but it was far from explicit that these visits would constitute such a prominent part of the trip. I am not saying that I wouldn't have chosen the tour if I has known about it, but I wouldn't have been so irritated when, after a couple of days, Mami would every morning announce more and more workshops. I tried hard to be interested, and there were places where I was genuinely interested, and those were usually places that I was the only one interested in, and we moved on quickly.

But during the very first days, when I was eager to get to the rainforest, the incessant visits to local businesses were frustrating. For instance, en route from Tana to Antsirabe we stopped at a place that produced aluminium pans in a very primitive way that all Western health-and-safety authorities would immediately close down: no gloves, no shoes, no goggles. We all were still green and naïve and asked stupid questions. To the question why they didn't use a more advanced technique – just slightly more advanced, like using a permanent mould rather than making a new one for each pan – Mami explained that this was the tradition: they had done so for generations, and they didn't want any change. (After a few days of similar experience, we stopped asking). Yet apparently this was a successful business because anywhere we went in the following days we saw the pans from that factory, which Mami proudly pointed out.

They had a small stall that sold aluminium lemurs and rodents, but they were not particularly pretty. I don't buy souvenirs for the sake of having bought souvenirs; I only buy things that I like or know I can give to someone who would like them. None of the small figures spoke to me, but I was glad to see some other people buying them.

Then there was a shop that made miniatures from rubbish, which I watched with fascination, because I could appreciate the ingenuity and skill (I am a miniature maker in my leisure time). I even bought a miniature bike, so at least that shop made some profit from our visit. The price was in the range of 50p. Enough for somebody's lunch? Mami cleverly advised me to put it inside a cut-off plastic bottle, and it survived the journey.

The third factory, on the same day, made all kind of stuff from zebu horn. We had already learned about the omnipresence of zebu as food, currency and sacrificial animal. Watching someone make a teaspoon from horn, bending and polishing it was in itself interesting, but I knew from experience that they only showed us a tiny bit of the process that takes much more time and effort. The tools were primitive (no more questions from us), and the products were fine, but not for me. Yet in each place at least some of us bought something, which made me feel less guilty. While the aluminium pans were presumably used by the locals, horn spoons, boxes, chameleons and baobabs were produced exclusively for tourists, which made our watching the process awkward and humiliating for everyone, including Mami. But as already mentioned, I am probably oversensitive.

The woodcarving shop on the road from Antsirabe to Ranomafana was disappointing. It was fascinating to watch an old man making marquetry with primitive, make-shift tools (no questions asked; but I couldn't help thinking that I have better tools for my hobby. If it were at all possible, I would like to send some good tools to this shop). However, there was nothing in the shop that looked enticing, but again I was glad that some of our companions bought rather expensive, even by Western measures, marquetry pictures of mountains and baobabs. I hope that whoever gets them as a gift will like them for whatever reason.

The rope and basket-weaving workshop was pathetic, but I enjoyed the papermaking factory for the same reason I enjoyed the miniature-bike shop: I could relate to it because I used to make paper myself. They made pulp from bark of a particular local tree; they boiled it for hours, beat into pulp with wooden mallets, diluted with water, poured into huge frames to dry. Decorated with dry flowers, just like I used to do, and made greeting cards, notebooks and other stuff papermakers do.

I had been looking forward to woodcarver's, because I have so many beautiful wooden animals from South Africa, but surprisingly there was nothing that caught my eye.

We also visited a rum distillery, a weaver's shop, an embroidery shop, a smithy. I don't know whether these were typical tourist attractions, like I used to take foreigners to when I was a guide in Russia. If you have been a guide you can see behind the scenes. Mami was a great guide, but I knew he was telling us the truth, but not the whole truth.

Mami said that about forty tourist groups passed all these workshops every day, so even if just a few foreigners buy something it may feed a family for a week. Most of these businesses are family ones, so hopefully the whole family benefits. There are also cooperatives, supported by Western NGOs. The question remains, are they profitable at all? Or do people toil elsewhere and only come in when tours are in sight? There are no tours during monsoon season. 

To be continued.